Like Shimla, Rishikesh wasn't too high on the wishlist initially. This self-styled 'Yoga Capital of the World' seemed more like a place for estranged Westerners seeking redemption by twisting their limbs, hum some mantra's or take some vow of silence, neither of which is really my cup of chai. However, as so many other times, my preconceptions were only half right. Yes, the estranged Westerners were there doing all those things and even the long haired, backpack wearing, wearing-Indian-clothes-ridiculous-looking Westerner in search of spiritual enlightenment I wrote about in the Amritsar entry where there, smoking pot and chilling out. The fact that there are so many Western people (also counting the dozens of Israelis as Westerners) also meant that hotels, shops and rickshaws are more catered towards the wishes of tourists, even those who were non-long haired, non-pot smoking and fairly rational thinking. The fact that most people speak decent English helps a lot.
Another advantage of a great number of (non-Indian) tourist that come to Rishikesh is the choice in accommodation. I paid only rs1000 for a very clean room that was double or even three times the size of the rooms I had before this and it even had AC (didn't use it though as the temperatures in this area are really comfortable). Apparently the room was usually more expensive but the fact that I called to make a reservation helped somehow. Oh well, I won't complain. And they serve excellent banana-chocolate pancakes, which I think is the ideal breakfast and a very safe choice as well. The coffee however, is terrible, even if you drink it 'Indianized' (milk, lots and lots of sugar).
The fact that the hotel is located on the High Bank, a good twenty minute walk away from the town itself makes it an ideal place to do some reading and just enjoy the scenery. There is the occasional screeching of the monkeys and some dogs having long distance conversations, but other than that it's pretty quiet. After the chaos and never-ending assault on the senses you deal with on a daily basis in this country, you really start to appreciate the serenity of a world without honking, without shouting, without vehicles and people that are coming your way and are not intend on changing their course. However, unless you want to spend your days in a hotel room, you can't escape it. And to be quite honest, you start to miss it after a while. It's like a drug putting all your senses on alert, making you feel really alive and very aware of your surroundings. How can you get homesick when you barely have time to remember what home is like?
As is not uncommon in the more popular places in India, especially the spiritual or holy ones, you have a good chance of being approached by a priest who - without asking - starts to give you something like a tour (for 'no money-no money' of course). It didn't take them long to find me, a lone wanderer who was just walked aimlessly in various directions. My 'priest' wasn't too pushy though and he even had some mildly interesting things to tell, which would help me find my way around the next day. However, knowing full well that he was going to ask for a 'donation' at the end, it didn't want to keep him around for too long. Also I was keen on getting back to just walking around without anyone trying to explain things to me in Indian English, which takes a lot effort to translate. I kindly refused the 'puja' or blessing for the river he offered to give me and then - when the unavoidable question finally came - gave him a donation of hundred rupees, which was fair considering that it wasn't that long nor interesting and the fact that I never asked for this 'tour'. The priest agreed that hundred rupees was more than enough saying over ten times that it was up to me to give what I wanted to give and that he wasn't asking for five hundred or thousand rupees, he did not ask for more, I didn't have to give more if I didn't want to, he was poor but he wasn't asking for more, he lived of donations, but if that is what I wanted to give then that was fine, no need to give five hundred or more, five hundred would be nice, but it was up to me, no need to give more than just hundred, that was alright. I was just nodding, glad he was so understanding. When it dawned on him that he wasn't going to get more he left, smiling, but probably only outwardly.
Back at the hotel, I discovered that they didn't just serve good banana-chocolate pancakes, but very decent Indian curry's as well. The first day they were still a bit surprised that I ordered two different curries with rice and two chapati's, but the second day they already used to the fact that I have a good appetite when it comes to Indian food. And really, the portions aren't that big.
The next day I decided to stay away from Swarg Ashram to avoid any more 'no money'-priests and explore the other part of (uptown) Rishikesh, in the vicinity of the Lakshman Jhula hanging bridge. Here you have the Swarg Niwas and the Shri Trayanbakshwar two temples which the Lonely Planet describes as a ' huge thirteen story wedding cake temple' which resembles a ' fairyland castles'. Sometimes the Planet is spot-on, other times I can understand why they wrote something, but this time I think the respective writer was in a higher state of mind when he looked at these fairly ugly, not so fairyland-like temples, which in a way resembled wedding cakes but a rather poor attempt at that. Inside, they were some interesting deities and a lot of bells to ring and also a number of the donation-hungry-priests, the ones I was trying to avoid. Some of them wanted me to take part in some ritual ('sir-sir-come-sir-you-must-do-ritual-pray-Shiva-sir-very-good-for-you-sir-sir-sir', followed by more 'sir-sir-come-sir' as I walked on) while others just came up to me, pointed to a statue and mumbled the names of the deities and then expected some generous donation, which would boil down to 20 rupees per spoken word. My dear holy man, I don't think so.
Monkeys can be a real menace at times. Generally they more or less ignore you when you ignore them, but when they descent from the roof and try to steal your ketchup bottle (the nerves!), that's when things get serious and you really want them to go. Usually it's not so hard to scare them, just pretending you want to throw something and most of the time they back off. This monkey which was interested in the ketchup bottle on my table wasn't too impressed by my I'm-gonna-throw-this-thing-at-you movements and instead of backing off, it started screeching, showing it didn't only have nerves but also the teeth to go with it. Luckily by that time the staff of the place was already coming with sticks and slingshots, making the monkey realize it was both outnumbered and outgunned, and it retreated into a nearby tree. Next time I'll make sure that if I threaten a monkey, I'll be able to carry out the threat as well.
Ram Jhula, the bridge that leads to Swarg Ashram, where you can meet nice priests that will be satisfied with whatever you want to give as a donation.
Lakhsman Jhula, the bridge to the 'wedding cake temple' which resembles a 'fairyland castle'. Judge for yourself...
The view from the bridge. Pretty, isn't it? Did I mention already that the weather is really nice in this part of the world right now?
This monkey figured out a way to drink coke from the bottom of the bottle. Smart creature. This was after it just finished its Big Mac. Globalization is everywhere...
Again, the 'wedding cake temple' which resembles a 'fairyland castle'. I mean you can either agree with me or be wrong, because this is not a wedding cake and I can't imagine any fairy coming close to this place.
Picture of one of the deities which you find in the 'wedding cake temple' which resembles a 'fairyland castle', in this case Ganesha. First picture in the blog is Kali. For some reason I've taken a liking to both of them; a bloodthirsty god of destruction and the serene god of knowledge. I guess it's a part of becoming Indianized, you start to love the extremes.
At the Swarg Ashram side of town, near the place where the Ganga Aarti of Rishikesh (a ceremony which is more for show compared to the Haridwar one) takes place, there is this statue of the monkey god Hanuman eating his hart out. Or having it eaten out. Or just put something else completely cultural insensitive here.
Pretty sunset picture.
IT'S SO PRETTTTYYYYYY!
IT'S SO PRETTY I'M GONNA DIE!
Next up, an exciting Intermezzo... The first time there was a genuine chance things were not going to end well.